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Reuben Agboola Sunderland AFC 1989

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On This Day (12 Jan 1985): Frozen out Reuben’s Roker debut abandoned as Lads take on Liverpool

After getting the cold shoulder at The Dell, Agboola was in familiar territory on his Sunderland debut.

Photo by Danny Brannigan/Getty Images/Hulton Archive

Reuben Agboola arrived at Sunderland back in 1985, keen for a fresh start.

His promising career at Southampton – where he’d been talked up as a future England international – had gone off track a little due to a falling out with Lawrie McMenemy, and the 22-year-old London-born defender headed north to join Len Ashurst’s Roker side.

Soccer - Football League Division One - Southampton v Leicester City
Reuben in action for the Saints
Photo by Peter Robinson/EMPICS via Getty Images

Agboola was set to make his debut against Liverpool at Roker Park on this day back in 1985, having signed for the club a couple of days before, and in the lead up to the game he told the press:

I needed a clean break, a fresh start with new faces and new friends.

Things had not been too cosy at Southampton between the manager and myself and in the end I was not too disappointed to leave.

It’s a long way to come, but I’m delighted to be here.

At Southampton, I was a small fish in a big pond. I was surrounded by internationals.

Hopefully at Sunderland, it will be different altogether.

We all seem to be of a similar standing here, and that’s good. I can’t wait to get started now.

Agboola’s fallout with McMenemy stemmed from an incident outside a nightclub in Southampton, which saw the north-east born boss sideline his young defender as punishment, to Agboola’s ire. Ashurst, sensing a bargain, snapped up Agboola.

Sweepers were beginning to be used behind two central defenders – a variation on the three at the back we often see today with the three playing in a line – and Agboola was a rare proposition in that he was something of a specialist in there, sweeping up behind his central defenders. And, it was that position Ashurst had earmarked for his new arrival – and he lined up against Liverpool behind Gary Bennett and Gordon Chisholm.

Reuben Agboola Sunderland AFC 1989 Photo by Danny Brannigan/Getty Images/Hulton Archive

It was a cold, winter’s day on Wearside, and the match was in doubt in the lead up to kick off, with Sunderland experiencing sub-zero temperatures overnight. Local ref George Tyson inspected the pitch at 10am and gave it the go-ahead, however upon arrival match referee Trelford Mills – something of a controversial character – wasn’t overly convinced about the state of the playing surface, but come kick off the pitch looked in near perfect condition.

However, once underway, it was clear the pitch wasn’t as good as it first appeared, with players struggling to keep their footing.

Sunderland should have taken an early lead, Clive Walker shooting wide from Gayle’s flick on, while a low cross from captain Barry Venison was met with a brilliant drive from Peter Daniel that Bruce Grobbelaar did exceptionally well to keep out.

Sunderland had another chance to take the lead just before half time. A good move involving Bennett and Venison saw Gayle given the chance to run at Alan Kennedy. The former Liverpool winger outpaced the veteran future Sunderland full-back and swung in the ball towards the head of David Hodgson, but the forward – another ex-Liverpool player – headed the ball down – only for the ball to bounce over the bar.

Sunderland v Newcastle United Divison Two Play Off Semi Final 1990
Agboola played 170 games for the lads, including the Division Two play off semi against Newcastle at Roker
Photo by Ben Radford/Allsport/Getty Images

It was all one-way traffic, but Liverpool did threaten moments before halftime – forcing Agboola into a neat headed clearance after Kenny Dalglish and Ian Rush had combined to create a headed chance for the Welshman.

The half ended 0-0, and to the surprise of many in the crowd, the interval brought with it the announcement that the game was to be abandoned.

Len Ashurst, who had made a public apology to the crowd at the interval after the abandonment was announced, said:

The referee called the match off and it was entirely his decision. I feel for the fans but I would ask them to bear with us.

Referee Mills explained:

An experienced referee has passed the pitch playable, but I was not entirely happy when I arrived at the ground.

Obviously I feel for the paying customers, but my concern has to be the safety of the players.

In the record books, Agboola had to wait a fortnight for his official debut – which ironically enough came against his former club at The Dell. A 1-0 defeat saw the lads drop to 18th place in a 22-team league, but his official Roker Park debut the following week saw the lads in a better mood, claiming a 1-0 win over Stoke City.

However, by the time Liverpool visited Roker for the rearranged game in early April, Agboola found himself in the reserves, Sunderland had lost the Milk Cup Final, and Len Ashurst was increasingly concerned about the prospect of relegation – which, of course, did ultimately happen, with Sunderland winning just two of the remaining 17 league games post Stoke.

Things would get worse for Agboola before they got better. As well as being unable to nail down a regular first-team spot and seeing his new club relegated from the top flight – when he’d previously played his whole career – he saw the man who signed him, Ashurst, sacked.

And replaced by the chap who’d frozen him out at The Dell in the first place – Lawrie McMenemy...

Find out from the man himself just how he reacted to the news McMenemy was taking over at Roker, and everything about his Sunderland career, in the podcast below, when I caught up with Reuben back in 2020.


Match Report: Toothless Sunderland Lose 2-1 to 17th Place Swansea


On This Day (25th February 1961): Goodchild’s sweet goodbye against Leeds United


Matchday Musings: Swansea City spoil the party at Sunderland

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